Apologetical Weapons: the Socratic Reductio

The reductio ad absurdum is one of the most devastating forms of argument. Show a man how his doctrines lead to absurdities, and you will almost always vanquish him in debate. Say a man is in favor of gay marriage; it is easy to show that the arguments in favor of gay marriage may also be adduced in support of polygamy or polyandry, or of marriage to animals, or even marriage to oneself, or to material objects. “Oh, pish,” he will say, “be serious. There is no slippery slope here; no one would do such silly things.” But people are already marrying inanimate objects, animals, and themselves. If you point this out to him, he won’t really have anywhere to go. You will leave him speechless.

But while you’ll make him feel frustrated and upset, you won’t change his mind (because he’ll be frustrated and upset at you). To do that, you have to talk with him in such a way that he himself elicits the absurdities implicit in his opinions. If he is himself the agent of the reductio, his defenses against intellectual attack will not have been mobilized.

The Socratic Method may be used to help moderns recognize the absurdities they espouse, and, having done so, to begin an honest deliberation toward a solution to the intellectual problem you have helped them discover.

The key to the technique is, not to try to demolish your adversary, but to ask questions in a spirit of true inquiry, as interested to find out more about his convictions, and their rational bases. He will, you may be sure, feel that there are indeed such bases, and that they are beautiful: orderly, coherent, elegant, satisfying. He could not otherwise hold to his beliefs. Your interest in his understanding of the rational bases of his doctrines should not be a pose, for that would be hypocrisy. That’s OK; it needn’t be. You may understand yourself as engaged in a project of natural history, to understand the liberal sort of mind – or, indeed, to test the rationality and coherence of your own doctrines in the fire of a serious, charitable consideration of the arguments of those who disagree with you.

How might such a gentle Socratic reductio run? Here’s an example, adapted from a comment I made last year over at VFR. Liberal Lou and his friend Traditionalist Tom have been talking about Lou’s kids, and how his boy plays war while his girl plays dolls, no matter what he and his wife do to encourage them otherwise:

Lou: It kills me. We give Joe a doll house, and we give Jill a set of toy trucks and cars. So Joe uses the doll house for artillery practice. He made a catapult out of a stick and a board, and used it to lob clods of dirt at his doll house. [Here Lou chuckles, despite himself, at what a cool idea this is.] Meanwhile Jill is having tea parties where the cement mixer is the mommy, the crane is the daddy, and the sports cars are the children. Drives Fran nuts.

Tom: And you guys have been doing everything to prevent this. What do you think accounts for it?

Lou: I don’t know, I think it must be genetic.

Tom: Wired in, huh?

Lou: Yup. It certainly isn’t training.

Tom: Why do you think those psychological differences between the sexes would have survived natural selection?

Lou: They must have conferred advantages.

Tom: How? What sort of advantages?

Lou: Well, in cave man days, the boys would have needed to grow up into warriors, and the women into mothers. In an emergency situation, the mothers of the clan would scurry to safety with the children, while the men formed a defensive shield. The men are bigger and stronger, so that arrangement makes sense. So it is natural, I suppose, that boys and girls would each be inclined to practice the relevant behaviors and ways of thought in early childhood.

Tom: But everything is different now, right?

Lou: Right … sort of. I mean, it’s getting better. [It is here that the reductio ad absurdum has been accomplished, and Lou draws back from the precipice.] But there is still a long way to go.

Tom: You mean there is a better than even likelihood that in a dangerous situation, the boy will be expected to deal with it, whereas the girl will be expected to deal with a problem relating to children.

Lou: Yeah. I guess.

Tom: So, are these psychological differences between boys and girls a good thing, or not?

Lou: I guess in some ways they are a good thing. It’s going to take a long time to change the world in such a way that boys won’t ever need to fight.

Tom: How long do you think it’s going to be before there is no fighting anymore?

Lou: I don’t know; 10,000 years, maybe! Maybe never.

Tom: So do you want your boy to be able to defend himself and his children, or not?

Lou: I guess I do. He may have to, someday.

Tom: What are you doing to train him in the fighting arts?

16 thoughts on “Apologetical Weapons: the Socratic Reductio

  1. In order to change someone’s mind, it’s not usually enough to ‘talk with him in such a way that he himself elicits the absurdities implicit in his opinions’. This approach assumes that everyone can be reasoned with; but nobody is entirely rational. Most people have an emotional investment in their beliefs – including absurd beliefs – which is difficult to expunge even by use of the Socratic Method.

    To change an opinion or attitude, arguments may need to be supplemented by subtle affective pressure.

    • Very true. I know of very few people who are not committed to evading truth. It’s too difficult for them to face facts, most people would rather live in the dream world that the MSM has created for them.

      The problem with democracy is you are forced to debate stupid people.

  2. This sort of thing could work with a 19C liberal. Now the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

  3. By the Socratic method, Socrates changed a few minds before being forced by the mob to drink hemlock.

    But political correctness has evolved in a context of Socratic questioning, and has pre-installed defenses which are totally effective against evidence, experience, reason, tradition and common sense – otherwise we would not be in the situation we are.

    I spent many years (about twenty) writing journalism and debating at conferences, on radio and TV – trying to use logic and facts to defeat aspects of PC – but it was totally ineffective, and indeed probably counter-productive.

    Also, it made me even more arrogant and conceited than I was to begin with!

    Alas, in a world where the premises of Natural Law are denied or inverted, Socratic questioning leads not to truth but to nihilism and despair…

    The modesty of Socrates, becoming the quietist ‘What do I know?’ of Montaigne, becoming the self-indulgence of Romanticism, becoming the dismissive shrug of modern adolescents (of all ages)…

    • I think not so much of Socrates but of St. Paul on Mars Hill. Without looking up the text in the Acts of the Apostles, what I recall is that the apostle began where his listeners were: (1) he recognized that they liked debate and discussion as intellectual exercise and (2) he observed the outward features of their city, notable the altar “to an unknown god.” But pretty soon he began to talk about specifically Christian matters — the resurrection.

      Perhaps often what we need to do is, not so much to talk about “God” — “God” is a word that means so many things to people! — but about Christ specifically.

      Always our talk needs to come from us as unworthy people who pray a lot.

      Question for Ortho-folk: In your various places, to what degree can you assume that probably many of the people you meet were baptized? Here in rural North Dakota I can assume that most of the people I meet were baptized as babies, however little Christianity may mean to them. But I suppose in many places one can’t assume this. It would seem to me that it would make a difference.

  4. You’re premise is based on the unsupported postulate that, when it comes to many political arguments and every argument couched in “human rights” or “civil rights,” that any form or argument will change someone’s mind.

  5. Hey, nobody said it would be easy!

    The consensus so far among commenters seems to be that reasoned argument is pretty much totally bootless. But this is a counsel of despair. If it were correct, then in the first place no one would ever have engaged in reasoned discourse more than once; it would not exist among humans, and all our disagreements would be resolved by physical combat. In the second I would myself never have been converted from liberalism by reasoned argument, nor would I ever have converted anyone else by that method. But these are all counterfactuals.

    Bruce, you have no idea how many in your audiences you converted over those 20 years of public debate. There were probably a lot of them. Your designated adversaries were never very good candidates for conversion in the first place, any more than you were a good candidate for conversion to their beliefs when you entered the lists. You and they were dramatis personae, attorneys in a public contest. In such public fora, you are never going to convert your adversary, nor he you.

    In a private, “non-adversarial” conversation, on the other hand, apologetical weapons can work on an adversary – although their effects might not be noticed by either party for many months. Where the ostensible adversary of a conversation is, not one’s counterparty, but rather your joint misunderstanding, or falsehood, or ignorance, reasoned discourse can work. And this is the case with most casual conversation among friends and acquaintances, passing the time together being mostly a way of sharing information that might help in some way (you can tell when you’ve heard such information, because you will find it *interesting*) – so that there is no ostensible contest of wills under way.

    To the extent that there is any such contest under way, learning on both sides is prevented. This is just one of the many good reasons, apart from the Dominical ukase, to practice Christian charity in all our discourse. It renders attacks upon us absurd, and attackers who have any brains left at all soon realize that their attacks – and their defenses – are simply inapposite to discourse with us, useless effort on their part. This can open them to education.

    It doesn’t always work, of course. Some of our interlocutors are wholly given over to Enmity. On them, nothing in the end will work but physical combat. There is a place for war in human affairs.

    I use the scare quotes around “non-adversarial” because I doubt there is any such thing as a perfectly non-adversarial conversation between creatures. The war in human affairs, as in Heaven, is ubiquitous: it proceeds always, even between lovers, and within them.

    • Effective rhetoric requires, as a first step, correct identification of the intended audience, its mood, and its capabilities.

      The example where you’re arguing against another lawyer is instructive: in this case, it isn’t the other lawyer you need to persuade, it’s the *jury*.

      More often than not, what we’re dealing with is a similar situation. We and our interlocutors are vying for the approval of an often silent, sometimes unseen, but frequently boisterous audience. This is why ridicule, for example, can be so effective even though strictly speaking it’s the logical fallacy of ad hominem.

      How many of you have had the experience of debating some leftist in front of an audience that cheers him on and high-fives each other even when he makes the most obviously fallacious points? If you thought it was merely a contest of evidence and logic, you seriously misread the situation.

      Socratic reduction works only insofar as it makes our opponent look foolish in the eyes of that audience. But if the audience thinks the reduction is clumsy or strained, then your attempt can backfire on you. You will be the one who looks foolish and you will be laughed at for using such cheap rhetorical tricks.

      If the audience isn’t capable of following a complex argument, it’s usually futile to attempt one. It might help make you look smart, but that almost the only positive outcome. If the audience can’t grasp your point, your opponent will have an easier time misrepresenting it and winning an apparent victory against the straw man he puts in your place. And if you protest, your distinctions and clarifications will often be seen as mere evasions.

    • I think the reason so many of us have concluded that argument is futile is because so many of the people we meet are simply uninterested in getting at the truth of things.

      Most of them, in fact, have vaguely accepted the notion that there is no such thing as truth. They find this a pleasant notion, because it gives them license to think and do whatever they like. They’re persuaded by their appetites, not by reasoning.

      They’ll lose patience with your Socratic reduction long before you get to its conclusion.

      But once you have a man who accepts the idea that there is a truth to be found, and who is openminded enough to follow the argument wherever it leads, well, you’re already three-quarters of the way home…

      • I wonder about this some times. Where does this aversion to truth come from? Is it *really* self-willed? Formed by bad habit or bad parenting? Simply a random product of brain dysfunction?

        This is the thing that frightens me most, because it suggests the possibility that the Calvinists are right — that God does, in effect, predestine some for salvation.

      • You leave out the common case where they don’t care about the truth beyond their unwillingness to admit they lack of care for it.

        Using your example of gay marriage – Many don’t care what it might lead to but won’t admit that because it would harm their argument and political position.

      • Bob: “There’s no such thing as truth.”

        Jim: “Is that true?”

        Bob shrugs, maybe laughs a bit nervously, then walks away. Later, he’s talking with Sally and tells her, “Well, you know, there’s no such thing as truth.”

        I’m reminded of the scene in the third Godfather movie, where the priest takes a pebble from the bottom of the pool, cracks it open, and shows that it’s still dry inside.

        I think we often make a mistake when we assume that people are playing the same language games that we are (to put it in Wittgensteinian terms.) When people say things like “There’s no such thing as truth” I don’t think they mean it as an assertion of fact or as a thesis laid down as the foundation of a philosophical theory.

        I think they mean it either as a way of evading responsibility — like a hand waving away a pesky mosquito — or as an expression of solidarity with others who share the same lifestyle. It’s like a song that everyone is singing, as a way of showing that they’re “cool”, that they “get it”. When you challenge it logically, all you’re doing in their eyes is signalling that you’re not one of the group.

        (… none of which is to deny the force of your argument and its persuasiveness for those of us who are already open to those lines of thought. My whole point is that it’s necessary first of all to understand what kind of people you’re dealing with, and not waste time making logical arguments when that isn’t what the situation calls for.)

      • Indeed. We must husband our resources, and expend them in discourse only with those who are amenable to its suasions – or failing that, as I have pointed out, where there may be some in the audience who may be swayed. For the rest, who are irrevocably, willfully at Enmity with Truth, and with us, well: wrt them, it’s just war, and we must pick our battles (remembering that their romance with error is lethal to them, so that if we simply stand back they will proceed to destroy themselves).

      • “My whole point is that it’s necessary first of all to understand what kind of people you’re dealing with, and not waste time making logical arguments when that isn’t what the situation calls for.”

        I learned this the hard and frustrating way. Now, when I “debate” with people who are of the “closed mind” as described above, I have in mind foremost the many readers who follow quietly that debate. I try to make my argument to the “court”…

  6. While it is important to understand logic when debating the arguments, the crux of the problem does not lie on the liberals arguments, but the close mindedness of the liberal point of view. Their materialism and scientism infects their thought process to the point where their basic axioms are absurd to start with: the reasonable position is to state that nothing has a reason. How can you possibly argue with that? Normally, any statement like that should be complimented with a “QED,” except in the liberal mindset. However, we keep hearing, because of that premise, that faith is unreasonable.

    The problem is the willing closing of the mind to other views, and the monumental pride that it entails. Show me a humble liberal, and I will show you a conservative in the making. Thus, it is not a problem of the mind, it is a problem of the heart. Evidence of this is Pascal’s wager. Unless you have the ultimate knowledge, or you are an arrogant fool, the only mathematically logical answer is to put your bet on the side of Truth. The best we can do is to plant a seed of doubt: What if you are wrong, what if there is Truth, what evidence would you require to believe in it, are your requirements reasonable… what if? Some of the seeds will fall on fertile soil, some will not. Well, we all know the parable.


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